Russia signaled the possibility of recalibrating its war goals in Ukraine on Friday as the Kremlin faces a global boycott of its brutal invasion, tough Western economic sanctions and Ukraine’s staunch resistance seems to be gaining some ground on the ground.
A statement by the Russian Defense Ministry said the objectives of the “first phase of the operation” had been “primarily accomplished”, with Ukraine’s combat capabilities “significantly reduced” and that it would now focus on focused on securing Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists had been fighting for eight years.
The Ministry of Defense statement is unclear about Russia’s possible territorial ambitions in Ukraine, where its ground forces have been mostly thwarted by the sudden forceful response of the Ukrainian military.
But on a day when President Biden was visiting American troops in Poland near the Ukraine border, the statement suggested the Russians were looking to salvage some gains before the costs of the war they waged. a month ago became impossible. uncomfortable.
Although Russia “does not rule out” that its forces will attack major Ukrainian cities such as Chernihiv, Mykolaiv and the capital Kyiv, the defense ministry statement says their takeover is not the goal. main.
“As the individual units carry out their tasks – and they are being successfully solved – then our forces and means will focus on the main thing: the complete liberation of Donbas,” said General Sergei Rudskoi. , a senior Russian military commander, said in the statement, his first since the February 24 invasion of Russia.
It is difficult to judge whether General Rudskoi’s statement is sincere or simply a misguided strategic direction. But the statement is arguably the most direct admission that Russia may not be able to fully control Ukraine and will instead target the Donbas region, where Russia has recognized the independence of the two breakaway regions. The Kremlin backs what it calls the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic”. ”
Russia also asserts that Ukraine recognizes its control over Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin’s forces seized from Ukraine in 2014.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has ruled out ceding these areas to a ceasefire.
Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, warned that public statements by Russian military commanders should be viewed with skepticism. While Russia may indeed be narrowing its war goals, he said, General Rudskoi’s statement could also serve as an insult as Russia regroups for a fresh offensive.
“We can say that this is a signal that we are no longer insisting on the destruction of the Ukrainian state system,” Luzin said. “But I like to see it as a distracting move.”
General Rudskoi’s statement came as Ukraine admitted that Russian forces had been “partially successful” in achieving one of their key goals – ensuring land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.
While Russia already controls much of the region, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry says the route allows Russian troops and supplies to flow between Crimea and Russia.
But some Ukrainian officials say the importance of such a route may be overstated. Oleksandr Danylyuk, former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council under Mr Zelensky, described the land bridge as a small victory for Russia and said the Kremlin was moving to secure Donetsk and Luhansk for “sale” to the Russian public as a potential victory.”
In Moscow, Mr. Putin, who has considered any criticism of the war a potential crime, used a teleconference with the winners of the presidential cultural award on Friday. to issue an article on “abolish culture” that did not mention the war in Ukraine.
In embracing a term that has become a favorite of the US administration to counter his thesis that the West is trying to obliterate Russian culture and history, Putin cited JK Rowling, author of the book. “Harry Potter”, who Comments on transgender women has been criticized as anaerobic.
“Not long ago, children’s writer J.K. Rowling was also ‘aborted’ because she – the author of books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world – did not satisfy fans of the novel. called sexual freedom,” Putin said.
Mrs. Rowling replied on Twitter that, “Criticisms of the Western culture of cancellation may not be best made by those who are currently massacring civilians for protest, or by those who imprison and poison their critics. ” She added a hashtag #IStandWithUkraine.
As Putin spoke, there were signs that Ukrainian forces were making some progress in the second week of the counter-offensive. A senior Pentagon official says that Russian forces no longer have full control of the southern port of Kherson and that the city, the first major urban center captured during the Russian invasion, is now “disputed territory”.
The Pentagon’s assessment contradicts General Rudskoi’s statement on Friday that the Kherson area is “under complete control.”
In another sign of the bloody stalemate in Ukraine, Russian troops have taken up “defensive positions” near Kyiv, the Pentagon official said, adding that Russia appeared to be fighting “priority” for the war in eastern Ukraine, as General Rudskoi pointed out.
“Clearly, they overestimated their ability to capture Kyiv and overestimated their ability to capture any population center,” the Pentagon official said.
Mr. Biden, on the second day of his three-day European visit over the Ukraine crisis, arrived in Rzeszow, Poland, about 50 miles from the Ukrainian border, where he met members of the 82nd Airborne Division serving as part of NATO’s efforts to protect Poland and other member states from Russian aggression.
Greeting American service workers eating pizza in a cafe, Mr. Biden called them “the best fighting force in the history of the world” and added, “I personally thank you for what you guys have done. do”.
Biden then met with President Andrzej Duda of Poland and officials who managed the humanitarian response to the more than two million Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland to escape shelling and deprivation.
Mr. Biden also announced a deal to increase US natural gas shipments to help Europe phase out Russian energy. But it remains unclear exactly how the administration will achieve its goals.
The agreement calls for the United States to send an additional 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas — about 10 to 12 percent of current U.S. annual exports to all nations. But it doesn’t solve the port’s lack of capacity to ship and receive more gas on both sides of the Atlantic.
Still, US gas executives welcomed the new emphasis on exports as a sign that the Biden administration is now looking to boost the US oil and gas industry rather than punish the industry for its contributions. contribute to climate change.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main developments
“I don’t know how they’re going to do this, but I don’t want to criticize them because it’s the first time they’re trying to do the right thing,” said Charif Souki, executive chairman of Tellurian, a producer American gas, said. is planning to build an export terminal in Louisiana.
Robert Habeck, Germany’s deputy chancellor and economy minister, said his country expected to halve its oil imports from Russia by mid-summer and almost end it by the end of the year – sooner than many think. maybe. He estimates that Germany, Europe’s largest economy, could be without Russian gas by mid-2024.
Pictures and videos from Ukraine emerged on Friday highlighting the growing death toll and devastation.
Newly surfaced security camera footage, verified by The New York Times, shows an attack on people queuing for first aid outside a post office and shopping center in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. devastated on Thursday. Oleg Sinegubov, head of regional government there, said that at least six civilians were killed and 15 were injured.
Photos taken in Kharkiv on Friday also showed a large fireball and nearby cars and buildings ablaze, as residents on joggers and bicycles fled, taking whatever they had. obtained after the attack.
In the central city of Dnipro, Russian missile strikes on a military facility destroyed buildings late Thursday night, according to Ukrainian officials, who said casualties were still being assessed. .
And in Mariupol, the southern port ravaged by Russian attacks, Ukrainian officials say an estimated 300 people have been killed at a strike March 16 on a theater used as a bomb shelter.
It is unclear how officials reached that estimate. Ukrainian officials have said that about 130 people were rescued from the attacked theater, although “children” had been written in giant letters on the sidewalks on both sides of the building.
The United Nations said on Friday that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, including 93 children, since the Russian invasion began, many of them in what appeared to be indiscriminate shelling. constitutes a war crime.
The United Nations warned that it could not yet verify the death toll in areas of intense conflict, including Mariupol, and said the actual toll was likely significantly higher.
In a sign that diplomatic efforts are in trouble, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, rejected comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who suggested Ukraine was ready to make concessions in four areas. important.
In an interview published on Friday, Mr. Erdogan, who is chairing negotiations between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations, said that Ukraine was ready to drop its bid to become a NATO member, accepting the language. Russia is the official language, making “certain concessions” on disarmament and agreeing to “collective security.”
But Mr Kuleba said the talks had proved “very difficult” and Ukraine had “taken a strong position and did not give up on its demands”.
“We insist, first of all, on the ceasefire, ensuring the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said, adding that “there is no agreement with Russia on the four points that the President mentioned by the Turkish president”.
“In particular,” he said, “Ukrainian is and will be the only state language in Ukraine.”
Report contributed by Helene Cooper, Ivan Nechepurenko, Valerie Hopkins, Andrew E. Kramer, Megan Specia, Nick Cumming-Bruce and Clifford Krauss.